A year ago today, Cyril Ramaphosa was inaugurated as SA president, taking over a country on the verge of a nervous, indeed general, breakdown after the rampaging excesses and gross delinquencies of the Jacob Zuma administration.

Leaving aside the highly inconvenient fact that Ramaphosa was the number two man at the helm for  more than half the period while the Zuma locusts ate, the newish president could address the nation last Thursday with the measured assurance that he was, painfully but procedurally, rightsizing the listing ship of state. He ended his polished state of the nation address with a rousing quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Man in the Arena speech at the Sorbonne in 1910.

Of the many improvements of the Ramaphosa administration over its predecessor is the fact that the current president can deliver a competent, sometimes compelling, address, with credibility. But there are few truly original themes or visions that have not already been mined by others in some form, especially in politics. Indeed, even acknowledged quotations themselves are often first excavated by people best left unmentioned.

I first sighted the Man in the Arena oration by Roosevelt back in 1990 as the frontpiece in a book of the same title published that year. Since its author was the infamous president Richard Nixon, forced from office by the Watergate scandal, I was happy to borrow the quote as the introduction to my own autobiography in 2008, but leave out the source of its most recent provenance.

I doubt that Ramaphosa or his speechwriters referred to On the Contrary in their search for an apt conclusion to Ramaphosa’s address to parliament last week. Maybe they were channelling their inner Nixons; or, perhaps, they have high admiration for the consequential presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.  If Ramaphosa arrived in office via the political defenestration of Zuma, Roosevelt obtained the presidency due to the actual assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley.

If there is any hope for SA, which plunged into darkness with unprecedented stage four load shedding just three days after Ramaphosa’s sunny “new dawn” speech, there are a few  useful lessons for our crisis-plagued country from the Roosevelt era. And while a century ago in a profoundly different polity might seem a stretch to apply to our divided land in its hours of darkness, a fascinating new study on presidential leadership offers some clues. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a noted presidential scholar, has recently published Leadership — Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times.

It is beyond clichéd to suggest SA right now is experiencing a perfect storm of gathering crises —swingeing debt levels, low economic growth, mass unemployment, failed schooling, high crime, metastasised corruption, emigration of the skilled and a pervading sense of despondency. In her study of Roosevelt Kearns Goodwin discerned some of these trends in 1902 America.

She notes: “His hands-on experiences at different levels of [the] government had sensitised Roosevelt to the hidden dangers of the age: the rise of gigantic trusts that were rapidly swallowing up their competitors in one field after another, the invisible web of corruption linking political bosses to the business community, the increasing concentration of wealth and the growing gap between rich and poor … the mood of insurrection among the labouring classes.”

While perhaps only economic affairs minister Ebrahim Patel and his comrades think economic concentration is our biggest problem, and certainly our corrupt system of government is entirely visible – that list bears some striking resemblances to some of our key maladies right now. The dawn of Roosevelt’s era also bears one other significant ghost afflicting Ramaphosa’s inheritance. One of the more corrupt bosses of the Republican Party, Mark Hanna, the closest confidant of the slain McKinley, was essential to Roosevelt’s transition even though both men detested each other.

On this issue of paying fealty to the past while attempting to break free from it, Kearns Goodwin offers this insight: “Yet, even as Roosevelt publicly promised continuity, he knew that if he pursued McKinley’s conservative policies to the letter it ‘would give a lie to all he had stood for’ in his fight to refashion the Republican Party into a progressive force.”

Thus, Roosevelt set about paying public lip service to his predecessor while dismantling some of the key pillars of his political house.

It is still unclear just how determined or otherwise Ramaphosa is to refashion both his party and the country into entities fit for purpose for 2019 and beyond. Rather than strike out boldly, he has gone along with the fail-safe political stratagem honed through the ages that “when in doubt appoint a committee (or a commission)”.

But that time-buying, kick–the-can-down–the-road approach has clearly reached its expiry with the cascading crises engulfing Eskom, whose monopolistic position and vast debt dwarfs all the hopes and aspirations for economic recovery.

The very first major crisis to confront Roosevelt in 1902 was a six month  long coal strike, which had plunged the entire north east of the US  into chaos, from bread shortages to freezing homes and widespread potential violence. Roosevelt faced a situation where both presidential precedent and the Republican status quo mandated that the president should never be involved in a labour dispute, and least of all interfere in the “workings of an unregulated free market”.

The crisis Ramaphosa confronts at Eskom has very different and multiple causes: rotten management, tender corruption, vast overmanning, state monopolisation and the sidelining of minority skills and management in pursuit of ideology. Since for the past five years war rooms and action plans have brought us nought, clearly only a drastic change of approach will yield a different result. Here again the Roosevelt play book offers some suggestions for how and when an activist president needs to take matters, after proper calculation, by the scruff of the neck.

In the case study of the coal strike, Roosevelt carefully considered the data, weighed the risks and calculated the ruinous costs of allowing the status quo to persist. He then plunged in and brought matters to a successful conclusion. Leadership offers some key lessons in how presidential involvement in a huge crisis can be effectively carried through.

Among the headlines Kearns Goodwin cites of this approach are: “Secure a reliable understanding of the facts, causes and conditions of the situation” (in the case of Eskom these are in plain sight but Ramaphosa was gobsmacked by Monday’s blackouts); “be ready to grapple with reversals, abrupt intrusions that can unravel all plans” (cue here the response of union federation Cosatu to the proposed break-up of the utility); “re-evaluate options; be ready to adapt as the situation escalates” (“watch this space”, to borrow from last Thursday’s speech); and “clear the decks to focus with single mindedness on the crisis” (difficult in an election year).

Next week we will see just how bare the fiscal cupboard is when the budget is tabled. Taking onto the sovereign balance sheet a hefty portion of the R400bn Eskom debt will be both difficult and potentially hazardous to the country’s precarious credit rating. But here the coal strike finessed by Roosevelt offers a further leadership lesson. “Don’t hit until you have to, but when you hit, hit hard.”

Roosevelt faced — as a Republican president — the implacable force of unreconstructed capitalism, his party’s traditional base. He hit them hard when he needed to. Ramaphosa faces, amidst a myriad of causes, implacable unions, his party’s core base. Will he save the utility, the country, and define his presidency, by administering a few brave and necessary smacks?

“Watch this space.” Otherwise, the new dawn will be dark indeed.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

@TonyLeonSA. Featured in Business Day